Game Design as Ingredients
When a person walks into Taco Bell, they know what they are getting themselves into.
On one level, the speed of the drive thru order is so breathtaking. Once, on a lazy summer afternoon years ago, I placed an order for a burrito and two soft tacos, and the service worker was holding the bag out of the drive through window before I had even driven up to the opening. Thanks to the Taco Bell app, fast orders can be made even faster (and contactless!).
As fast as it goes in, so it goes when it comes out…
With Taco Bell, you get convenience and low cost. One can eat 1,000 calories for less than five dollars. One can substitute ingredients and make it a vegetarian order, thus helping the environment and meat packing workers and plants caught in the coronavirus crossfire.
But all this convenience comes at a cost.
It may be unsurprising to many, but Taco Bell’s ingredients leave a lot to be desired. The inequality in the United States is so inegalitarian these days that it is best summarized in the options of the rich and the poor. Daniel Markovits compared the ingredients of Taco Bell to “The French Laundry,” a fine dining restaurant in Napa Valley. The cuisine restaurant’s ingredients, and the ingredients of Taco Bell, do not share a single similarity. Not even the salt.
Think about that.
Why am I talking about Taco Bell?
Because, in a way, Ubisoft has become Taco Bell.
For those who don’t know, Ubisoft is a video game company that has existed for decades. Founded in 1986, Ubisoft originally flourished by making action adventure games in the form of Rayman, or in dedicating themselves to the Tom Clancy experience, which gave players the ability to be “tacticool,” meaning they could vicariously experience intense shooting situations in first person without going through years of Navy Seal training. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ubisoft had cemented themselves in the United States with their dedication to authenticity and topical world events in their shooting genre.
But now, Ubisoft looks almost unrecognizable from the video game company they used to be.
Their biggest franchises, Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Watch Dogs, and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon (Wildlands and Breakpoint) have melded together into a single live-service morass that tastes the same to any gaming veteran. Similar to Taco Bell, Ubisoft has taken several staple ingredients and found ways to recombine the ingredients to make it seem like it’s a new product, but the truth is that much of the foundations of the experience are quite similar. They combine an open-world setting, shove a bunch of mediocre tasks in them, craft basic conflict resolution mechanics for the player, and create upgrades and experience and power ups, in order to address progression.
Take Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry. Assassin’s Creed 1 and the latest, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla look almost unrecognizable. But time is not so much the best comparison as space. In both Far Cry and the Assassin’s Creed series, you’ll find yourself climbing towers, exploring open worlds, finding gear and loot and upgrading your character, and participating in a story that allows you to entertain yourself in conflict without getting bogged down in context.
In Assassin’s Creed games, you get to be a tourist of some of human history’s most illustrious locales. Egypt, Greece, London, Paris. These heights of civilization give you a geographical canvas through which to paint a picture of history where, like Forest Gump, you are somehow connected to every inventor, scientist, politician, and noble of each age.
In Far Cry, you are exposed rather to the geography of “everydayland” meaning rolling hills, trees, rocks…that sort of thing. Yet your experience of vicariously living out an odyssey is done so based on a parallel to political topics of our time. In its latest iteration, Far Cry 5 allows you to enter a cultish atmosphere of far right fanaticism in America pinned up in rural Montana. Many anti-Trump followers will relish the jabs at Republican expense.
It may feel like different ingredients, but many of the mechanics remain the same.
In the Assassin’s Creed games, unlike say Kingdom Come Deliverance, there is no way you could experience the misery and suffering of history, as the tone is far too sterile. The pyramids in Origins are beautiful, but the years and lives lost to build them are hidden from the experience.
In the Far Cry games, you struggle to find the ramifications for the destruction your character wages in order to bring justice to a place. Instead, you need to kill bears to make your ammo bag bigger.
All video games to some degree do this, but Ubisoft is particularly pernicious because it will even sacrifice its own history in order to promulgate its new open-world formula. No intellectual property has suffered worse than Ghost Recon.
Ghost Recon as Open World
Playing Ghost Recon Wildlands is a bizarre combination of Ubisoft’s quest to make an “open world everything” while sacrificing the essential of what Ghost Recon was before.
I will admit that Ubisoft stands tall as the creator of absolutely stunning open-world environments. Especially with Wildlands, the topography when flying a helicopter is so similar to real world images as to play with the uncanny valley on your eyes.
But Ubisoft may still have not figured out what exactly to do with these spaces.
In previous Ghost Recon games, you were given a mission, an objective, and just as much time was spent in planning the route as in executing it in the shooting.
In Wildlands, an opportunity exists there, in the sense that there are missions, and there are spaces where guards wander the streets or tunnels, and you and your team of AI (or friends) can execute these scenarios. But the game does not lend this idea to you in information or in gameplay.
There is no intel. There is no briefing. You are instead tasked with performing what you do in every other open world game, which begins by simply asking you to “go to the destination.”
Once you are there, the mission unfolds. But that is not how specialists approach a scenario.
They train for plan B’s or plan C’s, and they have contingencies.
Instead, you really are at the mercy of the game, unless you’ve played the mission before and can advise for your friends. And as the mission unfolds and suddenly you find yourslef grabbing a helicopter to chase a priest driving away in a car, it feels less like Ghost Recon and more like Grand Theft Auto.
So in information, the game ties your hands. The same holds true for gameplay.
In the older games, you could predict the amount of enemies, as well as the geographic limitations of the map.
In Wildlands, the open world scenario means that…eventually…reinforcements will arrive from the ether. Engagements in this context mean that either you must be stealthy at all times, or you must hit hard and fast.
The AI of the enemy is incredibly lackluster, as it must be adopted for a wide range of scenarios. In a contained environment, attention can be given to AI’s reactions and decisions based on only a handful of floors, walls, doors, and windows. But in an open world, AI must keep to only a few decisions that work for every location. Grenades, running to cover, pathfinding, sounding an alarm.
Do you see what happened?
Ubisoft took an intellectual property that stood for one thing, and turned it into their formula.
Why Play Ubisoft?
Now, I do not want to discredit Ubisoft. They stand in as the first step many take towards a more in-depth gaming or literary experience. Perhaps, by playing Assassin’s Creed Unity, which takes place in Paris, they find themselves reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame. When players experience Ghost Recon and find themselves wanting a harder experience, they may turn towards Insurgency Sandstorm, or Escape from Tarkov. When players find themselves reeling from Far Cry 3, they may read a book on the effects of psychedelics. It is not up to me to assume what the significance of the Ubisoft experience is for a player of their games and what it leads to.
Yet anybody can see that Ubisoft takes properties and melds the experience into the ingredients it has in their restaurant.
For those experimenting with engines and creating “new” in the field of video gaming, the code may bear zero resemblance to the Ubisoft games.
But no one should be ignorant of what you are getting yourselves into. Ubisoft does have a second side to them, with For Honor, and Rainbow Six Siege, but their games follow a low cost and high content model. Like Taco Bell and their five dollar/1,000 calorie choice, you can buy one Ubisoft game and play that for the entire year. It provides enough open world space or repetitive competitive engagements to keep you playing ad nauseum. But the 30 second quality of the repeated experience must suffer for it because of its lack of contained and handcrafted design decisions.
In each of the presentations of the Ubisoft Forward stream on July 12th, you could feel this insecurity. Watch Dogs Legion is attempting to bridge their Rainbow Six competitive operators feature with the open world logic of their other genres. In the game, you can play through the missions as different citizens of London, encouraging you to embrace the thesis of “taking back the city” with the understanding that “everyone can be a revolutionary.”
But once again, it is simply the recombination of ingredients.
Still, it is a step towards a higher quality in the moment of playing, rather than simply a wealth of content.
This too was showcased with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, where taking a stronghold suddenly has choices. You can fight in the main battle, assist with the battering ram, or simply stealth your way to the boss. In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, fights were much more cardboard and single-minded. They were stilted and spammy, a simple aside to apply some pressure on the player until the resolution of the mission.
This is For Honor’s mark on Assassin’s Creed.
It’s sort of horrifying to see from a distance that Ubisoft’s innovation involves the same process as before. Taco Bell innovates by putting a hard shell and soft shell taco together and gluing it with beans or cheese. The same goes for the makers of live service experiences.
But the size and heft of the Ubisoft franchise cannot be overstated. We sort of need this niche in game design.
After watching the indie publisher Devolver showcase yet again their wild (to put it lightly) presentation, you get a sense that it is very difficult for any indie developer to make a premium (and pretty) open world three-dimensional game.
As much as we have seen the democratization of tools either through Unreal or through Unity, the truth is that it is still very difficult to program, animate, and design in that large of a space.
Unless you are crafting a walking simulator like Firewatch, or unless you can spend years making an early access survival game like The Long Dark, Ubisoft’s decisions are here to stay.
With Taco Bell, I used to be able to eat them safely as a young adult. That held true with Ubisoft.
But now when I eat Taco Bell, and when I play Ubisoft games, I get a weird feeling in my stomach, and I realize that I cannot go on like this.